Thanksgiving in Cuenca!

Nov 15, 2018 | 0 comments

The original North American Thanksgiving took place in 1621 and was a harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag natives at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. The feast lasted three days and nights, by most accounts included wild turkey, but more likely a roasted goose or duck. The Wampanoag ate eels and shellfish, so they probably shared lobster, clams and mussels, and maybe even dried or smoked fish. Corn, chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts, pumpkin or other native squash were on the menu.

Plimoth Plantation is an organization devoted to “a memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers.” They share Pilgrim and diarist Edward Winslow’s account:
Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors… Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed… These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.

The native Wampanoag were cultivators and taught the English immigrants how to plant turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, and squash and enjoyed a variety of tubers, including Jerusalem artichokes, Indian turn, and water lily.

And so, at that first celebration, all shared whole foods and lots of plants.

The First Thanksgiving in 1621, a year after the Pilgrim Fathers had left the Old World. Painting by Mike White.

But, what has happened to the “traditional” Thanksgiving for North Americans?  For more than a hundred years or more there was no white sugar, no pies, tarts, or even cranberry sauce.  There weren’t even sweet potatoes! In fact, potatoes were not available in North America until later on in the 17th Century; white potatoes from South America and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean.

U.S Turkeys — Mirroring U.S. Adults
The standard commercial turkey is “pathologically obese”…the word “pathological” referring to how selective breeding and artificial insemination, antibiotics and non-natural feeding has transformed the formerly healthy bird into a top-heavy, low-quality mess.

As reported by Martha Rosenberg, investigative reporter and award-winning author for the Huffington Post, “The chemicals, food additives and extreme production methods used to deliver the nation’s plump, affordable turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving are enough to make you lose your appetite.”

According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms that the average turkey destined for today’s dinner table “weighs a whopping 57 percent more than his or her peers did in 1965. Today, a bird can weigh 35 pounds in as little as five months.”

The percentage of overweight or obese citizens in the United States compared to the rest of the world, according to a new Lancet study.Credit: Lesley Marker

Give Thanks for Real Food
I’ve noticed the “new normal” North American Thanksgiving menu advertised in Cuenca’s local restaurants: roasted turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, maybe more gravy, cranberry sauce, biscuits, and pie.  Sigh.  This menu translates into a ton of calories, salt, fat, starch, and sugar.

There are alternatives. Maybe this year you’ll try a vegan Thanksgiving, can celebrate the true meaning of eating low on the food chain, known to sustain life more healthfully. Some ideas:

Start with a roasted apple and squash soup, then an autumn harvest casserole of roasted vegetables, sweet potato biscuits, and, for dessert, gingerbread cookies. All the ingredients easily found in Cuenca, and has all these delicious recipes here.

A roasted or baked wild-caught fish from Cuenca’s Loaves and Fishes salmon or other fabulous fish is my idea of a healthy yet decadent meal. Click here to order.

Shellfish is another option — grill or sauté shrimp with a bounty of vegetables, including tomatoes, onions, garlic, and diced squash.

Sweet potatoes are known as camotes or batatas in Cuenca, and can be found in various mercados throughout Cuenca, including Feria Libre, 10 de Agosto and 12 de Abril.  For more information and locations to purchase, visit

Kitty Hursh Graber, who lived in Mexico for many years, has a suggestion for zapallo, an Ecuadorian squash, which can be used in just about any recipe that calls for pumpkin.  She says, “Buy zapallo cleaned and cubed in Supermarket and many mercados also sell it prepared to cook. Just cook, mash, and then store in the refrigerator for a day or two, then drain the liquid and you’ll have a thick puree for your pie. Zapallo is also a great substitute for sweet potatoes in casseroles too.”

All the supermercados like Supermaxi and Coral sell frozen turkeys, Bocatti and some sell fresh. It may be possible to buy turkeys here in Cuenca, raised without commercial feed, especially without antibiotics or food additives.

One of our favorites, La Yunta Restaurant will be delivering fresh free-range turkeys and home-made pumpkin pies so get your orders in soon. Contact: 098 945 6551

And Rob Gray’s Gran Roca sustainable permaculture farm in the Yungilla valley deliciously offers all kinds of produce (raised without chemicals or pesticides), including fruits, vegetables, and herbs. I contacted owner Rob and he says that next week they will be offering their larger chickens for your Thanksgiving feast. He says, “These humanely-raised and antibiotic and hormone-free pastured chickens are a great alternative to conventionally raised birds. To order for delivery/pick-up sign up for our Weekly Newsletter as what is available changes from week to week. You can sign up for the Newsletter on the website or by sending a request to”

Feel free to post your favorite shopping sources in the comments below. Your recipes too!

Give Thanks For Good Health: And Prevent Weight Gain
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that it’s not just North Americans who perennially “go on diets” in January! It’s a global problem: weight gain and holidays seem to go hand-in-hand.  But, after the holidays, the weight doesn’t “automatically” disappear. And the older we get, the harder it is to take the extra weight off.

Make your holidays healthier —  with some easy modifications
You don’t have to do what your Mother or Grandmother did.  You don’t have to “obey” the recipe either!

So what if that casserole calls for a stick of butter? Use half. If you typically use heavy cream, cut calories and maintain the taste and use lower-calorie (and fat) 2% milk. Cut down on the sugar — just use less to sweeten beverages and dessert toppings.  Stevia is good to sweeten beverages and to sprinkle on fruit, but sugar brings physical texture to cakes and cookies: click here for tips for baking with stevia.

Although up to half of holiday weight gain is lost shortly after the holidays, half the weight gain appears to remain until the summer months or beyond. Eating a healthy meal, enjoying the company, and savoring the flavors is better than stuffing yourself, don’t you think?

It’s not a contest to see who can eat the most.  Eat until satisfied, not stuffed, like that poor turkey.

My Top Tips for a Healthy Thanksgiving
Be sure to take some time to count your blessings — knowing that you have the freedom to choose your foods.

The Blessings

  1. Food and feelings: Think about your relationship with food, how food affects you, and how what you choose can influence how you feel. Food is neither good nor bad, but it can be fatty or healthy, over-sauced or elegantly flavorful. Choose flavorful, well-prepared foods, and feel great about your choices.
  2. Balancing act: This year, throw off the shackles that are holding you back from feeling good about food. It’s not an “all or nothing” proposition. If you decide to indulge in something overly sweet, rich or high-calorie, balance with salads and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. Balance the scale in your favor.
  3. Be pro-active: Even if you can’t make it to your usual aerobics class or gym session, find a few creative alternatives and keep moving. I’m a fan of fitness trackers, whether it’s a Fitbit or your phone. Research shows that they motivate people to move more. Walking at least 10,000 steps a day will burn about 3,500 calories weekly. Start with a goal of 5,000 steps, and make them fuerte to get the benefits.
  4. Plan to succeed: Many of us face multiple social functions throughout the holidays. Besides Thanksgiving, there are upcoming social events — Christmas, New Years. It’s likely you’ll be invited to dinner at a friends’ and have no control of the menu. What to do? A small snack before you go could help you stay focused on smaller portions. Happily, when you’re dining out at a restaurant, you’re the boss. Take a look at that menu — know the lingo. Stay simple — order grilled, roasted, broiled, and baked — instead of covered in sauce, or cheesy, or deep-fried. Adding fat to your food just makes it… fatty. If it’s not good enough to eat without slathering butter on it, skip it. Make your voice heard — and eat slowly. Resign from the “clean plate club”, slow it down and you’ll be satisfied with less food — make para llevar por favor (take it to go, please) part of your vocabulary.
  5. Drink wisely: Sure you can toast the holidays, but calories add up quickly, especially liquid calories.  Eliminating sweetened drinks is one of the easiest ways to improve your diet, and alcoholic drinks mixed with sugary soda or juices are double trouble. Drink to your health with water, herbal tea or sparkling water.
  6. Say yes to NO! There’s really no reason to feel pressured to eat. When you’re faced with someone who insists you have a little more, stand your ground and roll out the biggest two-letter word in the English language. It’s your choice, so smile and say, “no, thanks”…or “thanks for offering, but not this time”…or “I appreciate your offer, but I’m full, thanks for thinking of me!”

Happy Thanksgiving in Cuenca!  Feel free to share your favorite shopping locations, sources of free-range birds, healthy recipes, or just thoughts about what it means to you to celebrate Thanksgiving in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2018.


Sources: Sick birds, sick production methods: 9 reasons to think twice about your holiday turkey Where do ‘Thanksgiving Turkeys’ come from? Celebrate a Vegan Holiday
Plimoth Plantation. Partakers of our plenty: Thanksgiving Food Traditions. How America’s Thanksgiving turkeys got so huge. What was on the menu at the First Thanksgiving?
The New England Journal of Medicine. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries.

This column was adapted from a previous column.

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally — a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her –

Susan Burke March

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